Friday 29 June 2018

Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin (Belfast, 2018)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Scottish Opera, 2018

Stuart Stratford, Oliver Mears, Samuel Dale Johnson, Natalya Romaniw, Peter Auty, Sioned Gwen Davies, Alison Kettlewell, Anne-Marie Owens, Graeme Broadbent, Christopher Gillett, Alexey Gusev, James Platt, Matthew Kimble

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 28 June 2018

Pushkin's Eugene Onegin has been praised as "an encyclopaedia of Russian life" but it's one of those works that manages to encapsulate the characteristics and behaviours of a nation within a story of the intimate sadness and tragic fate that life holds in store for many of us. Pushkin wrote his own tragic Russian story, killed in a duel over a romantic dispute like Lensky in his great masterpiece, and Tchaikovsky poured his own personal, marital and emotional struggles into his work here, and the personal input of both creators can be deeply felt in Eugene Onegin.

It's not much to ask to have that reflected and expect to feel deeply moved by a performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and while it rarely fails to hit the mark, there are many ways of approaching the subject. At one extreme you can have Stefan Herheim turning the work indeed into "an encyclopaedia of Russian life" complete with cosmonauts, Red Army troops and a dancing bear taking it right up to the present day, making the point that the Russian character - as well as the essential human character - remains largely unchanged. At the other minimalist extreme, Robert Carsen ties the emotional impact of the work and the course of a life to the colours of the seasons. Others, such as Krzysztof Warlikowski, have focussed on how much of Tchaikovsky's life and troubled sexual identity can be clearly mapped onto the characters in the story.

Oliver Mears, the current artistic director of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and former director of NI Opera, makes a return visit with his Scottish Opera production of Eugene Onegin and doesn't attempt anything quite as radical as the above examples, but in another way it taps into the idea of simple lives caught up in something greater. What it does manage to do is grasp that sense of the scope of life and love, of the personal and intimate placed within the greater context of life, memory and the passing of time; the madness and insensitivity of youth that can have an impact that resonates through a whole life and that we can only grasp the enormity of it when it's far too late to change anything.

Mears employs a simple enough device to get this across, having the silent figure of an elderly Tatyana recall and rewatch a significant event in her youth that would forever determine its future direction, all of it taking place in a single room of fading memory. I was immediately resistant to the idea, since the ending in Tchaikovsky's opera - and the melancholic tone of the work throughout - already places the work into the context of memory and the passing of time. Tatyana's rejection of the repentant Onegin at the end of the opera, even though she is clearly in love with him, is an immensely powerful conclusion that could hardly be delivered in a more effective manner with the addition of another rejection of Tatyana finally tearing up the letter and forever setting the matter to rest.

On the other hand it's quite plausible that the matter between Tatyana and Onegin might certainly be over, but both will still carry the regret for the rest of their lives. If it doesn't make the conclusion any more devastating, it succeeds in driving the point home, particularly as Stuart Stratford and the Scottish Opera Orchestra deliver the final blows mercilessly after succeeding in holding the audience in a state of romantic melancholy for the larger part of the performance, conserving those energies for the other real moments of emotional impact; in Onegin's rejection of Tatyana's love letter and in the tragic and foolhardy death of Lensky in the duel.

There are other ways of showing how we can end up paying for the folly of youth later in life, but most obviously it's Onegin who carries this burden. One of the best ways I've seen this done is in the 2013 Royal Opera House production, where Onegin is led during the Polonaise on a dance through a constant progression of women that gradually wears him down with the passing of the years. It leaves him in the perfect state to have his eyes opened to the opportunities of real love and stability in his life that have been lost. Interestingly, with an elderly Tatyana coming back to a dusty, decaying Larin mansion, once filled with life, Mears's direction makes you consider everything else that has been lost over time. For the first time really the Lensky's tragedy carried through for me, and I wondered what had become of Olga and the direction her life subsequently must have taken. Would Lensky's death have stayed with her or would the memory have faded with time and the other needs of life?

It's essential that, like Pushkin and Tchaikovsky, the reader or listener identify with the characters in the story and see their lives in that kind of context; Onegin as tragedy plus time. By casting the net of time further - Herheim's production certainly does this, and so too does Kasper Holten's doubling of the older Tatyana and Onegin looking back on their younger counterparts - Oliver Mears captures that sense of the work not so much as an encyclopaedia of Russian life, but just an encyclopaedia of life. There are many perspectives you can place on Eugene Onegin, but the most important one is what the individual listener and spectator brings to it; and the passing of time, the changes it brings and the regrets that still sting are something that everyone can relate to.

That's not to say that the viewer has to do all the work. Far from it. While the perspective Oliver Mears introduces sets the work in a wider context, Stuart Stratford and the Scottish Opera Orchestra permit the listener to feel the heat of life and the complexity of sentiments associated with it in every note of Tchaikovsky's beautiful melodies and dances. The singing and characterisation are critical however, particularly for Tatyana and Onegin, and the casting was nigh on perfect here. Natalya Romaniw was simply stunning. If she was a little blank and cool in her acting, frozen mortification works well for Tatyana, and all the yearning was there in a superbly sung performance. She had a perfect counterfoil in Samuel Dale Johnson's Onegin, initially aloof (making an entrance on a live horse!) and little by little falling prey to his own personality flaws. There were certainly no flaws in his singing. The quality of singing and characterisation of Olga and Lensky by Sioned Gwen Davies and Peter Auty was evident in how much you cared about their fates.

Eugene Onegin can sometimes risk being a little aloof and cool in its mannerisms of detachment if the music and singing aren't all perfectly aligned to bring out the true sentiments. That necessarily goes beyond the principals, the larger picture of life and the impact of time extending to the supporting characters, from Madame Larina and the nurse Filippyevna's views and life experiences, to Prince Gremin's reflections on married life and love later in life. The chorus, the dancers, also all contribute to the sense of life viewed comprehensively in all its richness, but with an underlying melancholy for the impact of that time exerts on it. Everything that is great about Eugene Onegin comes together perfectly in this Scottish Opera production.

Links: Scottish Opera

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov (Paris, 2018)

Modest Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov

L’Opéra national de Paris, 2018

Vladimir Jurowski, Ivo van Hove, Ildar Abdrazakov, Evdokia Malevskaya, Ruzan Mantashyan, Alexandra Durseneva, Maxim Paster, Boris Pinkhasovich, Ain Anger, Dmitry Golovnin, Evgeny Nikitin, Peter Bronder, Elena Manistina, Vasily Efimov, Mikhail Timoshenko, Maxim Mikhailov, Luca Sannai

Culturebox - 7 June 2018

There's a sense of the epic in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov that is entirely in keeping with the importance of the period in Russian history and with the nature of the Russian characteristics displayed in it. What is also essential about Mussorgsky's epic vision for the work is its ability not just to capture a sense of intimacy and personal conflict within that historical drama - a common enough characteristic in opera - but how he is able to make those personal sentiments just as grand and epic without losing their human character. Mussorgsky takes human sentiments of sadness, regret, guilt and internal conflict and gives them a Macbeth-like Shakespearean depth and complexity on a scale that befits their importance.

You get a sense of that right from the start in the opera, with the people of Russia calling out in chorus for him to be their new ruler. You also get a sense of how Boris feels about this from his very first line: "My soul grieves". He has a heavy duty to perform to live up to the expectations of the Russian people and do them justice, but there is also a sense of guilt and remorse for the manner in which he has come to power, with rumours already accusing him of murdering the young Tsarevitch Dmitriy from the line of Ivan the Terrible to ascend to the throne himself. An accumulation of misfortune and other forces, including the rise of a Pretender to the throne in Lithuania, turns the people against Godunov, and the combined results strike the Tsar in deeply troubling ways.

Finding a balance of scale between epic and intimate is one matter, but there is also the consideration of which version of Boris Godunov is the most authentic and effective in achieving the necessary impact. Historically it's been the revised 1872 version that has been most commonly used, and understandably so as it contains many extensions to Mussorgsky's brilliant score, but Rimsky-Korsakov's reworking of the original materials has also been popular. Gradually however, we are seeing more productions of the original 1869 version, commonly with a few additions from the revised 1872 version that are deemed too good to be left out.

The 2018 Paris production however, directed by Ivo van Hove and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, takes very much a purist approach by sticking to the complete 1869 original version of Boris Godunov, with no Polish Act nor any of the 1872 additions. It's purist at least in musical terms, but clearly with the controversial Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove involved in the project it's going to be anything but purist as far as the staging goes. That presents an intriguing team that should find a good balance between the grandly epic and the deeper underlying personal sentiments and in many respects both sides of the work are well represented, but the production seems to be more effective for the choice of the stripped down force of the 1869 version than for anything that Jurowski or van Hove bring to the work.

As is usually the case with this director, van Hove relies on a minimal staging, abstract-modern with no period or historical trappings. The use of the space, opened up with back projections of the Russian people and landscapes that are mirrored to the sides, permits a sense of epic scale that can also close the work down to a more intimate level of intensity. A staircase is often present, leading up and also leading down beneath the stage, the symbolism of which is clearly apparent, representing rise and fall, and the separation of the ruling classes from the people. Other scenes are effectively austere, such as between Pimen and Grigoriy in the cell of the monastery in Chudov, needing no further elaboration than two people in near-darkness recounting events in words and divulging the thoughts that run through their minds.

How much of the success in getting this across is down to effective direction, how much is down to the musical performance and how much of this is simply down to the power of the story and Mussorgsky's scoring of it is debatable, but it seems to me that it's Mussorgsky's score that does the bulk of the work. Even then Jurowski's conducting seems rather restrained and unfocussed, although it's hard to judge fairly from an internet stream (I'll be listening again more closely to the live radio broadcast on France Musique this weekend), and yet there's no question that the drama and the dynamic is all there. Likewise Ivo van Hove doesn't seem to bring much to an interpretation of the drama, but it doesn't get in the way of it either.

There are a few stylistic touches applied, but perhaps the only significant twist is at the conclusion. Not only does Boris Godunov finally and dramatically succumb to the pressures of family problems, famine blighting the country and growing instability in his mind over his murder of Dmitriy, but his son dies too at the hand of the Pretender Grigoriy. It's a dark dramatic moment that doubles down on the music that Mussorgsky provides for this finale and, as Boris's son's reign was indeed cut short in deference to the False Dmitriy, it even effectively conveys the suggestion in Mussorgsky's music that the conflict and turmoil of this historical period is far from over.

Ideally you want a Russian cast in Boris Godunov for maximum effectiveness, at least in the principal roles, and there's little to find fault with in team assembled for the Paris production. Ildar Abdrazakov is perhaps a little too smooth and lacking the necessary depth and edge to get across the full conflict of Boris Godunov. He sings the role well, but there's not enough emotion in the voice and too much overplaying in the acting to try to compensate for it. Ain Anger is an appropriately grave austere and occasionally ominous Pimen, there's a similar good balance of restraint and gravity in Maxim Paster's Shuysky, and Vasily Efimov brings vocal colour and some hard truths as the Holy Fool. Lots to enjoy in the singing performances then with strong a strong chorus combining to make a convincing case for the original 1869 version of Boris Godunov becoming the canonical version of this great work.

Links: L’Opéra de Paris, Culturebox

Thursday 7 June 2018

Benjamin - Lessons in Love and Violence (London, 2018)

George Benjamin - Lessons in Love and Violence 

Royal Opera House - London, 2018

George Benjamin, Katie Mitchell, Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Gyula Orendt, Peter Hoare, Samuel Boden, Jennifer France, Krisztina Szabó, Andri Björn Róbertsson

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - 26 May 2018 

I think it's fair to say that George Benjamin and Martin Crimp have paid more attention to the structure than the plot of their latest opera, and judging by the interviews with both of them in the Royal Opera House programme for its world premiere they'd probably be the first to admit it. That's not to say that there is anything wrong with that in an opera where the abstraction of music and its construction have an important part to play in addition to the dramatic narrative. As it happens however, Lessons in Love and Violence is not only brilliantly structured, it also seem to achieve exactly what it sets out to achieve, and perhaps more than you might expect from the title.

Maybe that kind of tight focus without any unnecessary over-elaboration is all we need in a situation, and certainly Benjamin's previous collaboration with playwright Martin Crimp, Written on Skin, is just as tightly and effectively delineated. But there might also be something more that we can derive from the artistry of the composer's musical interpretation of the text, from Katie Mitchell's direction and from the singing performances themselves. Certainly every element of the work has had the utmost attention, thought, precision and talent applied to its component parts, and in the combination of them raise the work to much more than the sum of them.

The lesson in love and violence that Benjamin and Crimp (and Mitchell and Degout and Hannigan et al) give us - or rather the lesson that they show us being passed on from one generation to the next - is thematically similar to Written on Skin and likewise based on a historical event and an old text, but reflected to some extent through a modern-day perspective. Drawn from, or perhaps more inspired by Marlowe's play 'Edward II', Lessons in Love and Violence is based on the situation (and violence) that ensues when the king's military advisor Mortimer takes offense at the favour and influence that Edward II's lover Gaveston has over the king, over the position it leaves the queen Isabel in, for the scandal it is causing and the harm that is doing to a nation slipping into instability and civil war.

Divided into seven scenes, running to only 90 minutes without an interval, the drama and phrasing of the dialogue is certainly mannered and not particularly naturalistic, but the focus is more on mood than exposition, on the accumulation of slights and conflicts, on personality and behaviour, all of it leading from love to acts of cruelty and barbarism. Watching its delivery and trajectory, it's easy to think that the work is rather laboured in terms of being meticulously thought out and almost, some might say, too academic an exercise in putting a situational drama to music. That might be the case but for the fact that in performance it really doesn't show.

All you see is a drama of remarkable concision in its concentration of musical and dramatic forces towards those essential themes, the work breathing sensual fire and menace. Crimp's phrasing is intense, direct and unadorned, repeating phrases, overlapping dialogues. Benjamin's score matches the fluctuations of mood and dynamic, dreamily sensual one moment, slow and sinister the next, harsh and dissonant the next. Combined they provide not so much a history lesson as a lesson in how love is viewed as weakness and how violence permits one to achieve personal and political ends. The lesson is well learned by the young king who observes the machinations of Mortimer and Isabel, and the result is that the violence is turned back on them. At the same time however, the underlying story, character and personalities revealed by the music, the direction and the singing ensure that this is never purely considered in an abstract or academic manner but closely related to human emotions and behaviours which can then be applied in a wider context.

Which is what Katie Mitchell's contribution brings to the work in collaboration with set and costume designer Vicki Mortimer, using some of their familiar traits. The setting is relatively modern-day, removing the subject from being tied to a historical period drama. The characters sometimes move in slow motion to enhance action or freeze the surrounding drama to bring focus to the singer, but the mood and rhythms are always fully attuned to the score and the text. There is also not unexpectedly a strong feminist vision the Mitchell brings to the work that is not necessarily explicit in the drama. Although it's the king's young son who brings to an end (or perpetuates) the cycle of violence at the conclusion of the opera with the execution of Mortimer, it's his young sister (a non-singing role) who wields the gun here - a turn of events that puts you in mind of Mitchell's work on the Purcell derived opera Miranda.

Hand-picked for the roles, the cast is simply superb and it's really hard to imagine any better singers fulfilling the roles, complementing each other and striking exciting contrasts. Singing impeccably in English, the French baritone Stéphane Degout sounds better than ever as the King (he's never mentioned by title as Edward II), striking out away from being the go-to Pelléas, but still bringing a wonderful soaring lyricism to another role that flirts with the danger in his relationship with Gyula Orendt's Gaveston. Barbara Hannigan has also recently sang in Pelléas et Mélisande, but there's a rather more steely edge to her character as the queen Isabel, delivering barbed inflections to the text that rise of course to shrill heights of imperiousness and ruthlessness. Peter Hoare is terrific as Mortimer, and Samuel Boden impressively assertive as he takes command later in the opera.

I mention Pelléas et Mélisande because it did come to mind now and again watching Lessons in Love and Violence. Not that it sounds at all like Debussy's masterpiece, but it is similarly structured into distinct intense dream-like scenes with quite beautiful instrumental passages between them. There's a darker outlook here however that is also reminiscent of Berg's Wozzeck, another precisely controlled and intense work. Benjamin however very much has his own voice, and it's one that clearly works tremendously well in collaboration with Martin Crimp. Their previous work Written in Skin was deservedly hailed as a modern masterpiece soon after its initial run and Lessons in Love and Violence is every bit its equal, on an initial viewing perhaps an even more brilliant a work in its concept and execution.

Links: Royal Opera House